Domenico Losurdo
Original publication:
Translation: Roderic Day

Domenico Losurdo interviewed by Opera Magazine (2017)

Visiting Brazil to launch his new book War and Revolution, the Italian professor from the University of Urbino made himself available for an interview with the editor-in-chief of Opera Magazine Pedro Marin and columnist and former international correspondent André Ortega.


World struggles against a New Colonial Counter-Revolution

Opera: We’d like to thank you for taking the time to grant us this interview. Let’s begin by discussing the book being released in Brazil by Boitempo: War and Revolution.

Losurdo: The book, a reinterpretation of the 20th century, is being released not only in Brazil. Its full title in English is War and Revolution: Rethinking the Twentieth Century. I can only say a few things about its contents, because the book is so big [laughs]. However, I can say that the struggle between colonialism and anti-colonialism is the fundamental essence of the 20th century. Anti-colonial parties were clearly led by communists, but we cannot understand the events the 20th century if we don’t consider this struggle as one between colonialism and anti-colonialism.

After the October Revolution we witness a worldwide anti-colonial revolution unfold. Before the October Revolution the entire world was the property of a few capitalist and imperialist powers: Africa was a colony, India was a colony, China was a semi-colony, Indonesia was a colony, and Latin America was a semi-colony (thanks to the Monroe Doctrine). That world was radically changed by the October Revolution, by worldwide anti-colonial revolutions born of the October Revolution. However, when I say that the fundamental essence of the 20th century is the struggle between colonialism and anti-colonialism, I mean it in a deeper sense.

Consider the history of the Soviet Union, where Hitler attempted the realization of “German Indies” in Eastern Europe. Hitler said: “We will have our German Far West in Eastern Europe.” This is a reference to the classic American “Wild West,” where the whites wiped out indigenous peoples and enslaved survivors in service of a “master class.” And so in Eastern Europe the Bolsheviks, identified with the Jews, were destined for extermination. That was Hitler’s program. I often quote [Heinrich] Himmler, one of the leaders of the Third Reich, who in secret Nazi conversations, now declassified, said: “Now that I speak only with Nazis, I can speak freely: Germany needs slaves.” These are slaves in the very literal sense of the word, and he states that they would find their slaves in Eastern Europe, particularly in the Soviet Union. In other words, the struggle of the Soviet Union was the struggle against an attempt to colonize and enslave the peoples of the Soviet Union. The essence of the Third Reich was the ambition to develop, radicalize, and expand the colonial tradition.

Therefore, Hitler’s failure to build the “German Indies” in Eastern Europe marked the beginning of the liberation of the British Indies as well. Later on, we have the Chinese Revolution, which we can consider perhaps the greatest anti-colonial revolution in the history of the world. And this historical arc concludes with the outright defeat of this first colonial counter-revolution — Hitler’s.

Within this framework we can detect other attempts at colonial counter-revolution. Immediately after the end of the Cold War we see, for example, Karl Popper, the philosopher of the so-called “Open Society,” openly state that the West “made the mistake of liberating these peoples too soon,” that the colonial peoples were not mature enough to be free. [1]

The risk of a great war remains as a result of the efforts, on the part of the United States, to stop anti-colonial revolutions, and to construct a new colonial counter-revolution. The US stands opposed China, but we can also consider here the position of Russia. In my books I insist on a point which is perhaps neglected: the history of Russia in general — not just of Soviet Russia, but of Russia in general — is, on the one hand, the history of an imperial and expansionist power, but there is another aspect to this historical reality: Russia has been at risk of becoming a colony for a very long time. We all know about the invasions by Hitler, by Napoleon, by Charles XII, by the Mongols. For example, if we remit ourselves back to the beginning of the 17th century, it was the Polish who exercised power in Moscow. Immediately after World War I — after the defeat of Tsarist Russia — Russia was in danger of being balkanized, of becoming a colony. Here I quote Stalin, who said that the West saw Russia like they saw Central Africa, that they were trying to drag it into war for the sake of Western capitalism and imperialism. [2]

The end of the Cold War, with the West and the United States triumphant, once again put Russia at risk of becoming a colony. Massive privatization was not only a betrayal of the working classes of the Soviet Union and Russia, it was also a betrayal of the Russian nation itself. The West was trying to take over Russia’s massive energy deposits, and the US came very close to acquiring them. Here Yeltsin played the role of “great champion” for the Western colonization effort. Putin is not a communist, that much is clear, but he wants to stop this colonization, and seeks to reassert Russian power over its energy resources.

Therefore, in this context, we can speak of a struggle against a new colonial counter-revolution. We can speak of a struggle between the imperialist and colonialist powers — principally the United States — on the one side, and on the other we have China and the third world. Russia is an integral part of this greater third world, because it was in danger of becoming a colony of the West.

This is my philosophy of world history, so to speak. And I apologize for my English [laughs].

Opera: Your English is perfect, professor. It would be better if we could converse in Italian rather than English, but what can we do. Now, you speak of colonial counter-revolution today…

Losurdo: A second, or maybe third colonial counter-revolution…

Opera: How would you describe the role of imperialism in global politics today? This “struggle against colonial counter-revolution” framing is fundamental, because here we have some so-called “post-colonial” left-wing thinkers and academics who don’t pay this kind of attention to the question of imperialism. To them it’s something obsolete.

Losurdo: We can begin by citing Lenin, who made a very clear-sighted distinction between classical colonialism and neo-colonialism. He said, at the beginning of the 20th century, that colonialism in the classical sense refers to political annexation, where a country or a people do not have political independence and are not considered worthy of independence. Classical colonialism is the political annexation of a country or a people by an imperialist, colonialist, capitalist power. However, Lenin also said that there is another kind of annexation, which is economic in nature: neo-colonialism.

We still have examples of classic colonialism, such as Palestine. Here we see classic colonialism. We see Israel expanding its settlements, expanding Israeli territory, and we see that the Palestinian people are treated like the indigenous in the “Far West”: they are expropriated, deported, and sometimes killed. This is classical colonialism. However, there is another form of colonialism: neo-colonialism.

These days I like to bring up two quotes. Mao Zedong, shortly after gaining power, said: “If we Chinese remain dependent on American flour for our bread, we will be a semi-colony of the U.S.” — that is, political independence will be formal but not substantial. [3] And I also quote Frantz Fanon, another classic anti-colonial revolutionary, a great champion of the Algerian revolution, who said something very important: “When a colonialist and imperialist power is compelled to give independence to a people, this imperialist power says, ‘You want independence? Then take it and starve.’” [4]

Since imperialists still wield economic power, they can condemn people to starvation through blockades, embargoes, and underdevelopment. Mao and Fanon were very different personalities, but they both understood that the anti-colonial revolution had two stages: a first stage of military rebellion or revolution, and a second stage of economic development. Any so-called “left” that does not understand this second stage is in no position to analyze anti-colonial revolutions.

What we see today is the development of the third world, and this development is not only an economic event but also a major political event. China’s attempt to break up the Western monopoly on high technology is part of the tradition of anti-colonial revolution.

The post-colonial “left” can understand anti-colonial revolution in terms of the United States bombing Vietnam, but it is unable to understand how the West wields its economic power throughout the world. And so this “left” is unable to understand this second stage of anti-colonial revolution, carried out through economic and technological development.

Opera: Regarding imperialism, some argue that the election of Donald Trump in the US represents a turning point in the character of US imperialism. What’s your opinion?

Losurdo: A certain “left” speaks of Trump as a big change, and this “left” gives the impression that it considers Hillary Clinton a representative of the left, or of peace. This is completely wrong.

Hillary Clinton is no better than Trump, and perhaps she is worse. Trump, at least in words, expresses the intent to improve relations with Russia, whereas Clinton wants to heighten tensions with both China and Russia. Perhaps we can understand this deep division among the ruling class and among imperialists with some analysis.

In the US there is a debate: is the United States in a position to fight Russia and China at the same time? Is it better for the US to split the China-Russia front? How can it split this front? Perhaps it can — and this is Trump’s position — make peace with Russia to better fight China. Others have the hope — perhaps just an illusion — that the US can effect regime change in Russia and, in doing so, succeed in totally isolating China.

In other words, these are different imperialist strategies. It makes no sense to speak of “left” versus “right,” or of war in Trump and peace in Hillary. It’s completely absurd: Hillary Clinton manufactured several cruel wars on behalf of the United States. For example, against Libya, she said she was very happy about the death of Gaddafi, unconcerned with human rights or terrible torture. [5] I believe Hillary Clinton is perhaps the worse of the two.

In any case, we cannot harbour illusions about American imperialism. I have differences, big differences, with the peace movement, but it’s unfortunate that there’s no such big movement for peace in the United States. An illustration: Trump has been criticized for everything, criticized and condemned for his attempt to improve relations with Russia, but nobody criticizes or condemns him for the big increase in the military budget. In other words I believe that, unfortunately, right now, imperialism in the US enjoys a broad consensus.

The US never officially abandoned the Monroe Doctrine

Opera: What about the political future of Europe, professor? With the immigration crisis and the rise of the so-called “far right,” what is your vision regarding openings for the left in Europe?

Losurdo: Perhaps we should clarify certain concepts. I polemicize against a certain left. If we consider World War I and World War II, they are very different. Of course, in both cases imperialism played a very big role. However, Lenin described World War I as a struggle between colonial slave owners. The colonial slaves, during World War I, were passive.

World War II was very different. During WWII colonial slaves played a very important — even decisive — role. We cannot understand the outcome of World War II without considering, first, the Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union — the struggle of Soviet people who refused to become the slaves of the Third Reich. It was an anti-colonial war too, led by the Communist Party. And what Hitler tried to do in Eastern Europe is what Japanese imperialism tried to do in Asia. Japanese imperialism tried to colonize and enslave China — Korea too, but particularly China — and this resulted in Chinese people fighting a war of resistance against Japanese invasion. After these two anti-colonial wars we saw others in Vietnam, Cuba, Algeria; the defeat of the Third Reich manifested the global anti-colonial revolution.

Unfortunately, immediately after World War II, Trotskyists said “Everyone’s imperialist!” They argued that no war of national character was deserving of support, they didn’t understand the Third Reich and Fascist Italy, as well as Japanese imperialism, as attempts to radicalize the colonial tradition. Now some idiots say that, sure, Americans are imperialist, but China is imperialist too. However, I won’t talk about China. In my opinion China, led by a great Communist Party, has played a very important role in the struggle against imperialism. But I won’t talk about China right now.

Europe. Europe is not the same as the USA. We must not forget that in Germany and in Italy there are US military bases. Italy is not a completely sovereign state. There are military bases, bases with atomic weapons completely controlled by Washington. In other words, a country like Italy — and the same applies to Germany — runs the risk of being dragged into war by Washington’s choices. If the US bombed Moscow, Russia would respond. And now, speaking as an Italian, I don’t like the idea of being cannon fodder for US imperialism.

What does this risk of a Third World War look like? We need to think concretely. The risk is not that Merkel will wage war against Washington, or that Italy will do so. The great risk is that the US will declare war on Russia or on China or on both, and that the US will try to pit Germany, Italy, France, and other European countries against China and Russia. In other words, in Europe it is necessary to carry out the struggle for peace not only because peace is a great cause, but because we must defend the independence of Italy and Germany against US imperialism.

I wrote an essay, which the Communist Party of Brazil translated, about Palmiro Togliatti, who during the Cold War argued that the struggle against the Cold War, against a Third War, was tantamount to a struggle for national independence against US imperialism.

The situation is different today because in the past, after WWI, and even after WWII, there were opposed military alliances. Today there’s just NATO and its expansive drive. In the past these military alliances criticized each other, accused each other of “arms races.” Today we have the opposite: the US criticizes Germany, Italy, and other countries in Europe for spending too little on weapons. Washington pressures Europe to increase its military capacity, targeting Russia and China.

In other words, we must be clear that the main enemy is the United States. Here I’ll quote the great Italian Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti, who said that the first qualification of a Communist Party is that it identifies the main enemy and concentrates all of its power against it. This is the situation today: the main enemy is the USA, and we can even separate Europe from the USA. Europe is not destined to follow the US. There are many forces in Europe that perhaps would prefer to follow an independent path in their foreign policy. Now, when it comes to the left and the right in Europe, there is a certain left that says, “Marine Le Pen is right-wing” — and, of course, she is not remotely left-wing. However, is Hollande more left-wing than Marine Le Pen? I have my doubts. Because the right means war, and in this case Hollande is more in favor of the war in Syria than Marine Le Pen. I will not be a follower of Le Pen, but I also see no reason to follow Hollande. And we can make similar considerations with regards to Italy.

If we are going to try to distinguish between the “right” and the “left” we must consider the two major problems: their position on neoliberal austerity policies and the destruction of the welfare state, and their stance towards big war and neo-colonial war such as the war waged against Libya, Iraq, Yugoslavia, and Syria. They are all neo-colonial wars. If a party defends these wars, it cannot be left-wing. It is right-wing.

Opera: During an interview with Principles magazine in 2015, you said that if the right-wing came to power in Brazil it would be a tragedy. Today the government of Michel Temer launches broadside attacks on workers’ rights. What is your view on this issue, and also on the “resurgence of the right” in Latin America, with Macri in Argentina, for example?

Losurdo: I earlier brought up the second colonial counter-revolution (the first one was carried out by Hitler). This second colonial counter-revolution was not only carried out in the Middle East, but also in Latin America, with the aim of reinstating the Monroe Doctrine. We saw the rise of leftist movements in countries like Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, etc. and now we see the US on the offensive, and this offensive is an integral part of this second colonial counter-revolution. The US never officially abandoned the Monroe Doctrine, although at certain points in time they were unable to advance it. I see these incidents as part of their attempts to advance this Monroe Doctrine.

Being for the revolution is not just a feeling

Opera: We’ve discussed this or that “left,” and I’d like to bring up a few more things. Here in Brazil we have a professor from the University of São Paulo who wrote an article about you, where he says “Losurdo is an old-fashioned Stalinist,” because of your focus on the colonial question, which he says is a focus on the “State Question.” I would like your opinion on this kind of thinking on the left, in terms of micropower, micropower relations, and the role that this kind of thinking played on the left in recent years, because alongisde anti-colonial revolutions we’ve had a wave of so-called “democratic revolutions.” You mentioned Popper, but billionaire George Soros also presents himself as a philosopher in the tradition of Popper and Kant, he styles himself a Kantian, and he’s played a key role in these so-called “democratic revolutions.” In Ukraine for example we saw NATO expand its power under this banner. What do you make of this so-called “post-modern wave”?

Losurdo: We must first consider, in a very serious way, the democratic question. However, we have to consider this question in the right light. For instance, if we read Bill Clinton’s inaugural presidential address, he says something that has become a kind of truism of our ideological hegemony: that the USA was the world’s first democracy and that therefore Americans are destined to rule the world. “Our mission is eternal” — those were his words. [6]

We should not respond by saying that we consider the democratic question unimportant. On the contrary: we should insist that when Bill Clinton claims that the USA was the first democracy, he’s claiming that the “first democracy” was a place where black people were enslaved and indigenous people were exterminated. We should say that Bill Clinton is a racist, because he considers that the history of black and indigenous people is a minor detail. He does not consider it important. This is white supremacy, Western supremacy. In other words, it is the opposite of democracy. I repeat: the opposite.

And the first objective we must carry out if we consider the problem of democracy in a serious way is the democratization of international relations. If a country or a group of countries decide and declare that they have the right to provoke a war — or, worse, a World War — without the authorization of the [UN] Security Council, they are putting into practice a theory whereby the West has the right to exercise despotism against the rest of humanity. It is open despotism: the US and the West openly declare that they have the right to intervene militarily in every corner of the world. That is despotism.

Take Syria, for example. Many people speak of a “Syrian War,” but the so-called “neo-conservative revolution” in the US declared, at the very beginning of the century, that Assad should be overthrown. They said that they should carry out regime change in Syria because Assad is against Israel, against the West, etc. That is despotism, and those who fight against such despotism are the real defenders of democracy.

Even when it comes to interpersonal matters, consider the Middle East: Where has the US waged war? Not in countries like Saudi Arabia or the Gulf monarchies. The targets of the US have always been countries that had an anti-colonial and anti-feudal revolution: Iraq, Libya, Syria. And of course we can criticize one aspect or another — but how are these countries different from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies? In Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies there was neither an anti-colonial revolution nor an anti-feudal revolution. And what is the result of the neocolonial wars of the US and the West? Nothing but the destruction of the state and the creation of a mass of desperate refugees who often die in flight.

But let’s stick to the question, for example, of women in the Middle East. Has their situation improved or worsened? Everyone can read — even in the Western press — that the Middle East has reintroduced female slavery. [7] After Gaddafi was overthrown, polygamy was reintroduced to Libya. Perhaps some see the reintroduction of polygamy as a “post-modern” achievement [laughs]. But it means the reintroduction of dictatorial marital power over women. In other words: imperialism has meant, in practice, a terrible worsening in the condition of women.

We need to consider the problem of democracy in all of these aspects. I quote Hegel: “The truth is the whole.” Bill Clinton, when he spoke of the US as the first democratic country, did not consider the totality, only the situation of the white community.

“Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East” — this passes for common sense, but Israel is also, on the other hand, despotism against the Palestinian people. Where is the law for the Palestinians? Palestinians can be arrested, expropriated and killed without the judiciary intervening. The military decides the fate of all Palestinians.

Imperialism is the greatest enemy of the cause of democracy, if we consider democracy in all of these aspects.

Opera: Your book Hypochondria of Antipolitics deals with another fundamental theme, which is the question of the political stand of the intellectual and how, although the intellectual has a political stand, they often run away from it, try to be neutral, antipolitical, etc. All of your work displays a strong Gramscian influence, so I would like to ask: How do you see the question of the role of the intellectual? And, while we’re at it, of the journalist?

Losurdo: We need to distinguish among intellectuals.

There are many intellectuals who are, let’s say, professional manipulators. Sometimes they are bought by imperialism — entire books focus on breaking down exactly how journalists are bribed. This is part of it, but it’s not the most important, since there are always will be intellectuals who are paid for by the ruling class. There is perhaps another, more interesting aspect.

We have many intellectuals who have aspirations to overcome the existing order, many intellectuals who do not identify with capitalist society, who want a better world, a better society. However, many of these intellectuals do not understand what political action is. In the book you cite I study Hegel, and he is the first major philosopher to try to explain what politics is. In Hypochondria of Antipolitics I draw a comparison between Hegel and Lenin: both of them fought against phraseology.

What do I mean here by phraseology? Its the category of affirmations that amount to mere expressions of desire, absent any effort to study concrete situations. Consider Lenin’s great phrase, “Marxism is the concrete analysis of a concrete situation.” [8] There aren’t many intellectuals who can carry out a concrete analysis of a concrete situation.

I explain, for example, that the First and the Second World Wars were different, and that therefore, given the risk of a Third War, we must carry out a concrete analysis of the concrete situation.

Being for the revolution is not just a feeling. You can’t effect a concrete transformation of reality on the basis of feelings alone.

As for Gramsci… everyone likes to speak about Gramsci these days.

Opera: Even the Stalinists [laughs].

Losurdo: [laughs] But Gramsci was both a philosopher and a revolutionary militant, one who spoke of the importance of the National Question. We cannot speak of hegemony without considering the National Question. Only a Party that considers the National Question can achieve hegemony.

Let’s first consider Marx and Engels. Yes, they spoke of the proletarian revolution. However, if we refer to the whole works of Marx and Engels, many of them focus on the National Question — in Poland, in Ireland, and in other countries of the colonial world. Why? Was it a distraction for them? No! A concrete revolution must consider concrete circumstances, and the concrete circumstances are the different national circumstances. As far as Gramsci goes, he wrote many, many pages about the Italian “Risorgimento,” for example. If we intend to exercise hegemony we have to consider the concrete situation.

But perhaps we can summarize Gramsci’s thinking with one episode, which I quote in my book on Gramsci. When he was condemned by the military tribunal, he said, “You are causing the destruction of the Italian nation. We, the communists, are going to rebuild it.” In this case Gramsci turned out to be prophetic. Mussolini, in his attempt to create a “New Roman Empire,” pursued war against Ethiopia with the rallying cry of “the reappearance of the empire in the hills of Rome.” He wanted a new empire in Rome; that was Mussolini’s great ambition. What was the result of this madness? Italy, by the end of WWII, was occupied by the army of the Third Reich. It became a colony of the Third Reich. And in order to regain national indepedence an anti-fascist struggle was called for. And the Communist Party led that resistance.

Gramsci saw the situation very clearly. In an important sense the Communist Party in Italy enjoyed hegemony in the intellectual world, because it was the party of most of the great intellectuals as well as of the workers.

Opera: And why didn’t they take power in the 1950s? They had weapons and great popularity, but we now know that the first elections in Italy after the war were fixed by the CIA, who gave money to the Christian Democrats…

Losurdo: Not only money [laughs]. We now know, from declassified CIA documents, that had the Communists won that election, the CIA would have declared the independence of Sardinia and Sicily, against the Italian state.

Togliatti was trying to avoid the terrible war that beset Greece. He understood the situation, and instead of triggering a war that they were destined to lose (because of the number of American soldiers in Italy) he sought to develop an alternative strategy. And this strategy was defeated because the socialist camp was defeated.

Opera: So, in your view, this historical compromise wasn’t exactly a mistake?

Losurdo: Berlinguer came up with that historical compromise after the coup d’état in Chile, and we all know what role the CIA played there.

The coup in Chile was evidence, for Berlinguer, that it is not enough to win with a small majority. With a small majority you can win elections and form government, but the CIA can then wage bloody counter-revolution. Berlinguer tried to avoid this situation.

But later the crisis and capitulation of Gorbachev in the Soviet Union changed the situation completely.

  1. Karl Popper, 1992-03-22. Kriege führen für den Frieden [Waging Wars for Peace]. Interview with Der Spiegel. [web] 

  2. J. V. Stalin, 1917-12-15. What is the Ukrainian Rada? [web] 

  3. Mao Zedong, 1949. The Bankruptcy of the Idealist Conception of History. [web] 

  4. Frantz Fanon, 1961. The Wretched of the Earth. [web] 

  5. Hillary Clinton, 2011-10-20. Clinton on Gaddafi: “We came, we saw, he died.” CBS News. [web] 

  6. Bill Clinton, 1993-01-20. First Inaugural Address. Yale University. [web] 

  7. Caroline Nelly Perrot, 2021-06-19. Women migrants reduced to sex slaves in Libya ‘hell.’ Yahoo! News. [web] 

  8. V. I. Lenin, 1920-06-12. On the journal Kommunismus. [web]